Know your digital rights

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has released a “bust card” for the digital age to let people know their rights when police ask to search their digital devices.

There’s a lot of common sense advice in the document including — importantly — keeping your mouth shut in almost all cases until you talk with your lawyer.

Of course, the right to remain silent is the one everybody already knows. (Thank you Law & Order.) Do you know how to answer these?

  • Can the police enter your home to search your computer or portable device?
  • Can a roommate give police permission to search your computer?
  • If police ask for your passwords, do you have to give it to them?

If you don’t know the answers, you might want to check the link. There’s even a one-page PDF you can download and post as a handy reminder.

More than 800 Montanans among breached Citibank accounts

LogoMore than 800 Montanans were among those whose credit card information was stolen last month by hackers who broke into Citibank’s servers, according to Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock.

The hacker or hackers accessed customer card numbers, names, mailing addresses and email addresses of more than 360,000 Americans, including 839 Montanans.

Social Security numbers, card expiration dates and the security code from the back of the cards were not in the information accessed, Citibank said.

In a written statement, Bullock cautioned all Montanans, even those not affected by the Citibank breach, to closely monitor all activity on their accounts and to check the Montana Department of Justice website for more information about guarding against identity theft.

Supreme Court strikes down California video game law

photograph of the justices, cropped to show Ju...
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The Supreme Court today struck down a California law that prohibited selling or renting violent video games to minors.

The 2005 California law banned minors from buying and renting violent games that would appeal “to a deviant or morbid interest of minors” or “is patently offensive to prevailing standards in the community as to what is suitable for minors.” The punishment for violating the law was a fine of up to $1,000.

In a 7-2 ruling, the Court said that the California law was (depending on your take) either not specific enough or too specific in its language to keep from violating game makers’ free speech rights.

In the majority opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia writes that the U.S. has no tradition of limited children’s access to depictions of violence. In fact, some of the works we ask children to read in school or expose them to in their preschool years are amazing violent, e.g. Grimm’s Fairy Tales, the Odyssey, the Inferno and Lord of the Flies.

California had argued that video games were a special case, different from other media because of their interactivity. Whereas with books, audio recordings and videos, children are spectators, with video games children act out the violence depicted on screen.

The court didn’t see a significant difference between the media. Like other media protected under the First Amendment, Scalia writes, video games communicate ideas through conventional literary devices and features distinctive to the medium. “That suffices to confer First Amendment protection,” he writes.

As to the newness of the medium, he writes:

And whatever the challenges of applying the Constitution to ever-advancing technology, ‘the basic principles of freedom of speech and the press, like the First Amendment’s command, do not vary’ when a new and different medium for communication appears.

Justice Samuel Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts, while agreeing with the Court’s decision, were not in line with Scalia’s take on how the Constitution should apply to new media. Urging caution, they wrote:

We should make every effort to understand the new technology. We should take into account the possibility that developing technology may have important societal implications that will become apparent only with time. We should not jump to the conclusion that new technology is fundamentally the same as some older thing with which we are familiar. And we should not hastily dismiss the judgment of legislators, who may be in a better position than we are to assess the implications of new technology.

The majority opinion makes special reference to concerns raised by Alito. Justice Alito “has done considerable independent research to identify … video games in which ‘the violence is astounding.'” Alito told the other justices about pixellated mutilations, decapitations, disemboweling, immolations and genocides. But then, the Scalia wonders:

To what end does he relate this? Does it somehow increase the ‘aggressiveness’ that California wishes to suppress? Who knows? But it does arouse the reader’s ire, and the reader’s desire to put an end to this horrible message. Thus, ironically, Justice Alito’s argument highlights the precise danger posed by the California Act: that the ideas expressed by speech — whether it be violence, or gore, or racism — and not its objective effects, may be the real reason for governmental proscription.

Alito is clearly worried about the vivid violence portrayed in many video games today, as well as the means by which players using devices like the Kinect can enact the violence physically. He says the Court was wrong to dismiss the negative psychological effects of violent video games out of hand.

“When all of the characteristics of video games are taken into account, there is certainly a reasonable basis for thinking that the experience of playing a video game may be quite different from the experience of reading a book, listening to a radio broadcast or viewing a video,” Alito writes. “And if this is so, then for at least some minors, the effects of playing violent video games may also be quite different.”

The dissenting justices, Clarence Thomas and Stephen Breyer, based their arguments on the health and wellbeing of children.

Thomas argued that when the First Amendment was drafted, it was unacceptable for someone to speak to a minor without parental consent. “The historical evidence shows that the founding generation believed parents had absolute authority over their minor children,” Thomas writes.

Breyer saw a dissonance between the Court upholding bans against selling pornography to minors while allowing minors to purchase graphically violent video games.

[W]hat sense does it make to forbid selling to a 13-year-old boy a magazine with an image of a nude woman, while protecting a sale to that 13­ year-old of an interactive video game in which he actively, but virtually, binds and gags the woman, then tortures and kills her? What kind of First Amendment would permit the government to protect children by restrict- ing sales of that extremely violent video game only when the woman—bound, gagged, tortured, and killed—is also topless?

So far as I could tell this morning, Montana has no specific laws regarding video games, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that any kid would feel free to walk into a rental store and grab a copy of Call of Duty: Black Ops, Homefront or Dead Space 2 without meeting, at the least, some stern looks from the clerk.

So what do you think? Should kids be allowed to rent or buy any kind of game they want? If so, should they also be allowed to buy or rent pornography or other “offensive” content? Discuss in the comments.

Here’s the Supreme Court’s decision

Montana not ‘going Google’ anytime soon

Image representing Google Apps as depicted in ...
Image via CrunchBase

Following up on the announcement that Wyoming has adopted Google Apps for Government, I called the IT people in Helena to find out what Montana’s plans are regarding cloud computing.

Montana, as it turns out, won’t be relying on Google to the same extent as our southern neighbors any time soon. Stuart Fuller, the state’s chief technology officer, said Friday that on April 30 Montana re-signed a three-year enterprise contract with Microsoft.

The total cost of that contract over the three-year period is $7,644,327, according to figures send over by the Department of Administration. The cost for software — the Microsoft Office Pro Plus suite — is $3,305,760. There are also a few outside costs, such as operating systems, server access licenses and a few applications that aren’t installed on all computers, such as Visio and Project.

“We are looking at cloud computing in other aspects of the cloud,” Fuller said, pointing to a four-state initiative with Utah, Colorado and Oregon to put GIS information in the cloud.

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Wyoming ‘goes Google’

A friend passed this on to me. Wyoming has switched all of its state employees over to using Google Apps for Government, making it the first state to rely solely on the search giant for its Web services.

Other states use Google Apps for some of their services, including departments in Colorado, Kansas and New Mexico, Google says.

Google is, of course, excited about the roll-out. The company posted the news to its official Google Blog and produced this video:

Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead says Google Apps will save the state $1 million a year. In an announcement posted yesterday to Google’s Enterprise Blog, Mead said that his office was the first to transition to Google.

Mead writes:

Not only has Wyoming cut the cord and gone to cloud-based computing, allowing more mobility for and collaboration between employees, this is also the first time all of our employees have been on a shared email platform. This means greater efficiency and it will almost certainly lead to better service to the public. It also saves money in costs related to servers, licensing and staff. In addition, compared to what we would have spent for equivalent features in our previous system, we anticipate dramatic savings associated with email storage and overall security.

The state also held a live-streamed announcement this morning at 8 a.m., which I, of course, had no idea about until after it was over.

There are concerns about moving government services into the cloud… None of them was raised in the Google and Wyoming announcements this morning, but I’m sure someone in Wyoming is thinking about this. I should hope. Here’s one concern to note:

One challenge currently faced by public sector data owners is that classified, restricted or simply sensitive personal data is often stored on the same systems as less sensitive, operational data. Working out which data could be moved, and which could not, is an extensive task and one for which few public sector CIOs have the appetite.

I’m going to make some calls to the Montana government and find out if anything like this is planned for our state. I’ll see what comes out of it.

Presidential tweets

The New York Times was paying attention to Pres. Barack Obama’s Twitter account over the weekend, it seems, and noticed that the president himself posted an update.!/BarackObama/status/82505176849711104

According to the Times, from now on, any tweet sent from his account that has “-BO” appended is from the man himself, while the rest come from staffers. Most of the tweets during his 2008 campaign came from staff members, the blog notes.

Mugshots: to publish or not to publish

A suggestion has recently come forward at the newspaper to publish the mugshots of people booked into the Gallatin County jail on our website. We’d put this into a slideshow for all the world to see and be entertained by.

Gates1977We certainly would not be the first website to do so. The Smoking Gun has been curating a gallery of mug shots for years. There’s also and, which both claim huge archives of celebrity and common criminal mugs alike. In 2007, an Orlando-based entrepreneur even started a print paper devoted to the embarrassing little photos. And here’s another.

Straight news organizations are also in the game. The Chicago Tribune does it. A few more: the Richmond Times-Dispatch; the Star News of Wilmington, N.C.; Newsday; and the Daily Press of Newport News, Va., to name just a few rounded up in a Google search.

The argument for publishing these photos is pretty obvious: People like looking at them. There’s something fascinating about looking at other people who are in unfortunate situations and taking some comfort or amusement from that. Perhaps it’s not the most praiseworthy or noble of ways to get your kicks, but it works.

In fact, it works so well that the printed mugshot papers listed above are making money hand-over-fist at a time when many traditional newspapers are having problems paying the bills (and the journalists). Like it or not, voyeurism is a popular pastime in modern America.

Isaac Cornetti, publisher of a mugshot paper called The Slammer, told the Christian Science Monitor in 2009 that he doesn’t think his paper qualifies as “journalism” per se, but he does think that it can teach valuable lessons. “The appeal is voyeurism and schadenfreude,” he told the CS Monitor, “and it has some redeeming qualities, too, like helping people protect themselves, their families, and their businesses.”

It’s the idea that people are protecting themselves by looking at these mugshots that has critics of mugshot publishing up in arms. Mike Hoyt from the Columbia Journalism Review told the CS Monitor in the article that such websites were slightly better than the stocks as a means of public humiliation.

In 2009, Greg Beato took up the issue on, noting that it was a slippery slope to celebrate the humiliation of people who are only accused of crimes. Beato does not content the legitimacy of humiliation or shaming as punishment. After all, some judges put convicts out on the street wearing sandwich boards for all the world to see.

The difference, he notes is that the people who wind out on the street have also “spent some time in front of a judge or jury, who ultimately found you guilty.”

“In general, mug shots have always carried the heavy suggestion of guilt, as if getting caught in the act of being arrested is tantamount to getting caught in the act of committing a crime,” he writes, noting that this is far from the truth.

He goes on:

As soon as a law enforcement agency presents its online rogues’ gallery as a form of deterrence, it transforms the pictures into a form of punishment as well. If appearing in this context is a fate so unpleasant that it can persuade other people to avoid engaging in illicit behavior, then surely it constitutes a penalty. And it’s a penalty that’s being applied without the hassle of due process.

Most sites that do post mugshots also publish a disclaimer noting that the people pictured are innocent until proven guilty. The ethicists worry that’s not enough. Merely seeing their mugshots displayed there on a “crime” page or in a magazine with a name like “The Slammer” is enough to imply guilt, and that, for a newspaper, may be going too far, even for the coveted readers and/or eyeballs.

The Beato article was brought to my attention after the idea about posting mugshots, and the concerns it raises has me seriously reconsidering what I, at first blush, thought was a great idea.

I put it to you, reader. What do you think? Would it be unethical to publish mugshots live from the jail, or would you be among the people dying to see them every day?

CMS learning curve

I’m not sure where this image came from, but I know the feeling:

I have certainly felt that way about Drupal the few times I’ve tried it.

In more pertinent news, our CMS at the Chronicle is due for an upgrade this week. What does that mean for you, reader? Not a lot. What does that mean for me? Loads of new tweaking opportunities.

This should keep me busy for a week or so. Huzzah!

Third best in the state!

The Chronicle has the third-best website in the Montana Newspaper Association, if you believe the results of this past weekend’s awards ceremony in Lewistown. I also walked away with an honorable mention in the Best Web Project category for our Where They Stand election feature.

In all, the Chronicle won 34 awards, the details of which will run in the paper and online as soon as time and space permit. Not a bad showing.

Now back to me and the website. I think third place is great in a year when the Great Falls Tribune completely redid its website using a new content management system different from what all the other papers in the state are using, but don’t think that I am content with third. I would be much happier if, next year, we were on top… and then remained on top forever after. 🙂

That’s where you all come in, faithful readers. If you have ideas for improvements that we can make to the Chronicle site, interactive features you’d like us to create or features you’d like added that will make the site more useful to you during the course of your day, please, let me know. I mean it. Let me know.

I’m so serious about this, that I’m putting a contact form right here in this post.

[contact-form-7 404 "Not Found"]

See how serious I am. I really want suggestions and feature ideas. Really.


Here’s some inspiration for me (and for you, perhaps):

Two new elements you’ll never see or use added to periodic table

Two new elements have been added to the periodic table. Elements 114 and 116 are now officially recognized by an international committee of chemists and physicists, the Associated Press reports.

Both elements are very heavy, in atomic terms. They are radioactive and exist for less than a second before decaying into lighter elements. Their Wikipedia pages will offer you more details about them than you probably want to know: 114, 116.

The two new elements are unnamed right now. For the time being, element 114 is called ununquadium. Number 116 is dubbed ununhexium. Scientists use generic, number-based names for new elements until they are given official names, like argon, plutonium and unobtainium.*

The discoverers have proposed a name for 114: flerovium, after Russian scientist Georgy Flyorov, Wired reports.

The elements were added after a three-year review by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry and the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics, the BBC reports.

As a side note, you may or may not know that the periodic table as pictured above is not the only way to arrange the elements into a pattern that makes a lot of deep sense. The fact that there are alternate periodic table presentations has fascinated me ever since chemistry class in high school. Check out some of the alternatives on the Wikipedia** or here for a spiral layout or here for a whole database of alternate layouts.

* Not real.

** Sorry for the glut of Wikipedia links in this post, but it really is a great source for raw scientific information.